(Flickr CC // Runar Eilertsen)

What Are You Thinking, Selfie-Stick Man?

by Henry Wismayer


What are you thinking, Selfie-stick Man? I don’t understand.

It’s a late summer’s day in St Petersburg, Russia, and we’re in The Hermitage, formerly the Romanov family’s Winter Palace, one of the great museums of the world.

It’s the Second Floor, the Pavilion Hall. The ceiling and walls are fretworked in gold leaf; the floor is polished marble. On the right, past Joseph Coxe’s ingenius ‘peacock clock’, are dozens of Baroque rooms stuffed with Renaissance masterworks.

Beyond, in other wings of this vast treasure-house, are busts from ancient Rome, sarcophagi from Egypt and armor from the Golden Horde. There’s Scythian jewellery, 20-ton vases hewn from malachite, paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Rubens, Rembrandt.

The story of civilization is contained within these walls.

And here’s you, holding a plastic stick, staring unblinking at a digital reflection of your own face.

I saw you walk in, holding it perpendicular to your chest like a ceremonial sceptre. You progressed across the room in shuffling steps, relying on your peripheral vision to negotiate the crowds.

You’re part of what looks like a large group tour, and your herding instinct carries you in their wake as they move through the museum’s Italian art collection. From room to room you go, ignoring canvases by Raphael, Caravaggio, Veronese, Tintoretto.

“No,” you think. “The important thing is me.”

You’re not the only one, I know. Your tribe is growing.

Only yesterday, outside a church off Nevski Prospekt, I saw dozens of other tourists queuing at the trestle-table of the selfie-stick peddler, clamoring to purchase sticks of their own. The traditional stallholders, their tourist chintz and nesting dolls ignored, could only look on with envy.

This morning, outside the museum, these totems of 21st-century vanity, these ego-extensions, protruded from just about every tourist gaggle.

And I suppose your stick made a bit more sense out there, in Palace Square, with its broad panorama of the Winter Palace’s pale-green exterior. Outside the face lent scale, color, personality. A couple of snaps for posterity, why not? The obligatory social media update: “Look at me, internet. I’m in St Petersburg.”

But now? Now, here in these rooms, you are taking it to a whole other level. Your gaze unwavering, your arm unyielding, you are Homo Narcissus, mesmerized by yourself: Selfie-stick Man.

Now you’re standing in front of the Madonna Litta, a portrait atributed to Leonardo da Vinci. Thought to date from 1490, it depicts the Virgin Mary in a cobalt cloak, her pearlescent face canted down to the cherubic infant Jesus she is cradling in her arms. The child is naked and suckling, his head half-turned, gazing out at the viewer with a knowing eye.

“Not interested,” you imply, turning your back.

You’re more preoccupied with creating a masterpiece of your own. You angle the stick a little left, then move it right. You dip your chin, then stick it out, examining the angles. You consider light, texture, zoom: this Leonardo picture is nothing more than soft-focus context, background to the only thing that matters: you.

Onwards you walk, holding the device aloft.

I know you shouldn’t bother me, Selfie-stick Man, but you do.

Kinder observers would say: “So what? He isn’t hurting anyone.” But I can’t shake my suspicion that you, with your stick, with your arrant self-absorption and your disdain for history, with your consummate lack of cultural curiosity… I can’t help thinking that you are the problem with the whole world.

What does your face bring to the scene, other than to say: I am a ridiculous human?

What is so diverting about your face, Selfie-stick Man? Don’t you get bored of its pocks and contours? Do you decorate your home with mirrored walls? Have you become supremely accomplished at doing things back-to-front? If someone was run over in front of you, would you rush to help, or just take out your phone to film?

Well I’ve got bad news for you, Selfie-stick Man. Your bid for immortality is folly. This self-actualization you seek — it’s a mirage. One day, that phone will be obsolete, thrown on a scrap-heap, or stripped down, its parts recycled. These images of your face will no longer exist.

Neither will you.

So lower the fucking stick, and look around.